Photograph of Bert Williams (left) and George Walker, ca. 1898.
Bert Williams (1874-1922) was one of the preeminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians (of any race) at the time. He became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, as well as the only black performer to sign with Ziegfeld Follies (1910-1918). Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Williams met George Walker in San Francisco in 1893 and the two formed what became the most successful comedy team of their time. They staged several vaudeville shows and full musical theater productions, including Senegambian Carnival (1897), The Policy Players (1899), The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902)…their biggest hit, Abyssinia (1906), and Bandana Land (1907). When George took ill and retired in 1908, Bert continued working and shared his earnings with him until he died in 1911.
Williams was also one of the most prolific black performers on recordings, making around 80 recordings from 1901-22. Indeed, his first recording sessions with George Walker for the Victor Company in 1901 are considered the first recordings by black performers for a major recording company.
Williams died in New York City on March 4, 1922 after contracting pneumonia while on tour.